Indonesia should rethink conspiracy theory

Five hundred years ago, the mediaeval philosopher William of Occam came up with an important principle that underlies all scientific modelling and theory-building today.

Occam’s Razor states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. Given two or more alternatives, the simpler and more direct answer is the most likely.

Some believe Indonesian society to be the antithesis of Occam’s Razor. And at no time is this more evident than over the question of terrorist leaders on their soil, where Indonesians are more than willing to accept a grand, convoluted international conspiracy against them.

But then, as recent history has shown, they are often game for a good conspiracy theory that some politicians have now latched onto for their political ambitions in 2004.

The terrorist saga has generated a discourse in the media and at the highest levels of government, which finger external elements for bringing more misery on a country already besieged by floods, economic crisis and political imbroglio.

The conspiracy theory making its rounds here is that Singapore and other regional states are ganging up with the United States to put pressure on Jakarta to crack down on Muslim militants in Indonesia.

In a less-than-circumspect editorial, the latest issue of the Tempo weekly charges that ‘the Singapore Government, like many other governments, has been diligently making use of America’s anger towards radical Islamic groups believed to be behind the Sept 11 attacks’.

And what does Tempo offer as proof of this? It has this explanation: ‘Since the start of the New Order government, Indonesian military intelligence officers are known to have worked closely with their counterparts in Singapore’, especially in monitoring and carrying out repressive operations against groups seen as extreme left (communist) or extreme right (radical Islam).

Feeble. But the buck does not stop with the local media.

The most senior legislators in Indonesia are also spoiling for a fight.

Take National Assembly (MPR) chairman Amien Rais’ comments. He echoed the sentiments of many others in Parliament by suggesting that Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in making comments about the presence of terrorist masterminds in Indonesia, had ‘acted like the mouthpiece of President Bush’.

Ingrained in society here is the concept of kambing hitam or scapegoat – someone or something Indonesians can always shift blame to, usually external. Post-independence history has clearly shown that Indonesians dislike being told what to do, especially if it comes from a ‘tiny red dot’ called Singapore.

But driving much of this reflexive nationalist and cultural psyche today is politics. Politicians are all too eager to jump on the bandwagon to score points with an increasingly-assertive Muslim ground.

All those taking pot-shots at SM Lee’s remarks – Dr Amien, Vice-President Hamzah Haz and security czar Bambang Yudhoyono – are all key contenders in the presidential election in 2004.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri might be seemingly detached from the furore, but she, too, has a vested interest in assuaging the Muslim crowd.

Can anyone blame them for doing little to address the problem of extremist cells in Indonesia?

Political concerns are central to their calculations. The Muslim bloc in Parliament is the third largest and could easily rock the government if it goes on the offensive – the way it did against her predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid.

That is one reason why Ms Megawati has worked hard to cultivate the Muslim ground by offering its members key positions in Cabinet, including the vice-presidency, when she was elected last July. TREADING THE GROUND SOFTLY A CLAMPDOWN on radicals now would mean throwing the nationalist leader back to her position in 1999, with her Islamic credentials questioned and a repeat of the religious discourse that questioned her right to the presidency because of her gender.

That is why the President is treading the Muslim ground softly. A crackdown on the militants would stir up a hornet’s nest among local politicians hoping to gain from playing the Islamic card.

Among the elite, some of the generals in the Indonesian military and intelligence agencies seem to understand the gravity of the problem.

Intelligence chief A.M. Hendropriyono is trying hard to weed out the extremists, but he does not appear to be getting backing from some of his ministers and even within his own organisation.

In the post-Suharto era, the thinking in the armed forces continues to be ‘do and you will be damned’.

All this inspires little confidence in Jakarta at a time when South-east Asia is facing its first major security challenge in the post-Cold War world.

In recent months, Washington, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have all uncovered hard evidence that links Indonesia to the terrorist equation.

Two of the most wanted men on the list of suspected terrorists are walking freely in the country.

Before charging that it is a grand conspiracy, Jakarta should exhaust the simple explanation first and do some serious rethinking. Occum’s Razor demands no less.

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